By Karen D. Lorentz
Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a four-part series addressing the slow progress of village plans at Killington Resort. Part 2 will describe the progress made by Killington Ltd. as well as the obstacles that prevented completion of its plans.
It was 49 years ago this November that a beaming Preston Leete Smith announced at a press conference that Killington had completed its first real estate master plan with a goal of building a true, four-season destination resort. The area’s founder proudly shared plans for a 44-acre Killington Center, complete with hotels, lodges, restaurants and shops, plus three new residential areas located on the mountain.
Regardless of the time, effort, and millions of dollars expended, Killington still does not have a village with ample slopeside housing and a village center, which would impart a “sense of place.” It is a conundrum that defies logic and the “experts” as well as many local and regional residents.
Despite being the most popular destination resort in the East (based on annual skier visits) and the resort having been awarded the designation of a “growth center”—as well as various owners having “village plans” since 1967—Killington still lacks the base area village and slopeside housing that would allow it to compete with the West and become a true world-class destination resort.
Although there is currently an amended Act 250 land use permit that would allow Phase I of the SP Land Village Master Plan to proceed, the 12-year process that got to this point is itself indicative of the many problems encountered in the past that slowed village progress. And in a most perverse manner, that process also illustrates why a permit doesn’t mean development actually can proceed.
The tremendous irony is that the Act 250 permit process, which was adopted by the state in 1970 to promote environmentally sound growth, was utilized to prevent and stall the first village master plan at Killington, and even after the environmental community came to agreement with Killington’s next owner with the “growth center” compromise, the Act 250 process continued to be used to stall the next master plan.
Meanwhile, despite the progress that has been made—base area Grand Hotel, nearby condominiums, townhouses, inns, lodges, and homes—the resort is still years from fulfilling its destiny, and many say it is at a competitive disadvantage.
To understand why the latter is true requires some understanding of trends and why a village center and slopeside residences (especially affording a walk to slopes as well as ski on/off) are deemed necessary.
Ski village trend
The Mountain Times asked Parker Riehle, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association, and James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, a New York-based strategy and research firm with clients nationwide, to offer their insights on the role of villages.
“Research shows that the critical mass created by villages with higher density commercial areas and residential development helps to expand the market. By offering more things for families and groups to do, resort villages engender a heightened sense of community and commitment to an area, whether the purchasers of condo units or homes are skiers or not,” noted Riehle.
“It’s a case of a rising tide floats all boats. People don’t just stay in a village, they go out and explore the local art galleries, shops, and boutiques. Mont Tremblant in Canada is an example where a major village has increased winter and summer visits and benefited area businesses as well. The worry for existing businesses that they will lose business to the new shops within a village is not borne out. Mont Tremblant has shown no deleterious effect—they all prospered,” Riehle stated.
“The construction of a village with restaurants at Stratton has not appeared to adversely affect restaurant business in Manchester or the surrounding area,” he continued. “In addition, the extensive development of Stowe Mountain Resort’s Spruce Peak base area has provided a critical bed base along with numerous amenities to attract new and older skiers, which brings plenty of traffic to the village of Stowe where the shops, restaurants and lodging establishments benefit greatly.”
Citing a multiplier effect, Riehle pointed to Colorado skier visits as moving ahead of Vermont in the 1970s due to their destination-resort villages. “Skiers found the convenience and luxury offered by resort villages to their liking, and Colorado doubled Vermont’s skier visits by 1980. The destination-resort village trend followed in Vermont with the result being a number of villages of varying sizes and ages with the largest and most defined being at Stratton, which has an extensive commercial core in its Village Square and many surrounding residential communities as well as a sports and tennis complex and 27-hole golf course.
“But even that village is more like a mini Vail,” Riehle pointed out. “Vermont villages tend to be smaller than western counterparts. Smugglers’ Notch Resort is as an example of a village having a smaller retail/commercial center, with residences clustered around the mountain and village core but offering many amenities and programs. The benefit of having so much offered is hot pillows [better occupancy rates].”
“The expanded developments at places like Killington, Smugglers’ Notch, Stowe, Okemo, Stratton, Jay Peak, and Mount Snow also provide a real draw for summer activities and events, with the much needed bed base to support the traffic that is so important to the overall tourism revenues for Vermont,” he added.
James Chung, whose clients include ski resorts, observed that many skiers “judge much of their experience on the village, which you see at places like Mont Tremblant. Ski resorts that have villages have an advantage of providing a deeper experience beyond the time on the slopes, and for certain segments of skiers, that’s rather important.
“But that’s not everyone, and some ski resorts aren’t necessarily at a disadvantage, depending on their audience, if they don’t have a base village,” Chung continued. “Some places are all about the skiing, and other places are all about the total vacation experience. Fortunately, there’s not one single formula for the industry… A village isn’t necessarily a prerequisite to be truly competitive today, as there are various ski resorts that succeed without a real village. But for a major destination, it’s increasingly difficult to succeed without a village and the bed base that comes with it. The reason is simple: The number of skiers is declining, so what keeps the industry humming are the committed skiers that are increasing their skier days. And given the economic structure of America, the committed skiers are increasingly a high-income audience, and many of them simply expect the kind of amenities available in a resort village,” Chung said.
“So what ends up happening is that the sophisticated resort developers are taking market share from the less-competitive players. In the end, the bottom line is that Killington doesn’t really need a village if it can succeed as a day-trip mountain, but it’s more challenging over time to compete as a resort,” Chung concluded.
Riehle noted, “For Killington, the need for a base-area village development is just as compelling now as it was when first proposed, given the evolving market demand for the ski-in/ski-out slopeside amenities that have proven to be very successful at other resorts throughout the world.”
Asked if Killington is at a competitive disadvantage without a village, Smith stated, “To compete with the West and be a world- class destination resort, Killington absolutely must have a village.”
Smith foresaw that need in 1967 well before the destination resort trend hit Vermont.
By Karen D. Lorentz